Classic Motown Songs to Learn on Guitar
From The Supremes to The Jackson 5, Motown artists made a major impact on the musical landscape.
By Ben Nemeroff
Motown was more than just a record label - it was a sound all its own. Named for the Motor City of Detroit and the birthplace of the label’s founder, Berry Gordy, Jr., Motown put the Midwest on the map as a major musical mecca.
Home to such legendary artists as The Supremes, The Jackson 5, and The Temptations, the Motown sound was a blend of blues, soul, R&B, gospel, and pop. The label and its artists’ impact can still be felt as an influence today on such modern artists, like Bruno Mars, Floyd Fuji, Anderson Paak, Nick Hakim, and Leon Bridges.
How to Get the Motown Sound on Guitar
Although layered harmonies and soulful vocals were one of the defining features of the Motown sound, guitarists at all levels can learn a lot by trying their hand at songs from the label’s most iconic artists. Whether you’re a beginner guitarist or have been playing for years, learning to play classic Motown songs can help you improve your rhythm guitar skills and add new techniques to your arsenal.
Some of the hallmarks of the Motown sound are minor 7th chords and the 4/4 time signature. Motown instrumentation places heavy accents on the 2 and 4 beats. String and palm muting techniques can help you land those rhythmic chord chops -- playing a chord and cutting it short quickly with either your fretting or strumming hand.
Ready to start playing? Listen for some of these techniques and chord styles and give some of these tricks a try when playing these classic Motown hits on guitar.
The Temptations: My Girl
One listen to the intro and you know it’s “My Girl.” Written by Smokey Robinson (then-lead singer of The Miracles) and Ronald White, the song became a #1 hit that introduced The Temptations to the world. Known for their intricate five-part vocal harmonies, the instrumentation behind “My Girl” features a symphony of strings and some iconic single notes that make up its main riff. Suitable for even beginner guitarists to learn, “My Girl” consists of only four chords (C, F, G, and Dm) all played in open position in standard tuning. String muting and different strum patterns help lend a dramatic feel to this bona fide Motown classic.
Full list of The Temptations songs on play here.
Stevie Wonder: For Once In My Life
Written in 1965 and recorded as a tender ballad, “For Once In My Life” got a whole new lease on life in the hands of Stevie Wonder. In 1968, Stevie took the song and upped the tempo, giving it a joyful feel. Known for his key changes, Stevie Wonder’s rendition of “For Once In My Life” includes some unexpected chords, played in different positions along the fretboard. Among these chords are some of the 7th chords that were a staple of the Motown sound, including F7, Gm(maj7), Gm7, C7, and a Dbmaj7. Alternate strumming and chord anticipation make this one a challenging, yet fun and funky song to learn.
Marvin Gaye: Let’s Get It On
Released in 1973, arguably no other song’s sexy groove of an intro signals folks to turn down the lights and chill some wine than Marvin Gaye’s iconic “Let’s Get It On.” Played with a capo on the third fret, “Let’s Get It On” embraces a soulful sound with easy chord changes, but plays around with different rhythmic styles of playing those chords. Chord anticipation heightens the mood, making this a timeless -- and easy -- song for even beginner guitarists to learn.
Full list of Marvin Gaye Songs on play here.
Marvin Gaye: I Heard It Through the Grapevine
Originally written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for Motown Records in 1966, this song is as classic Motown as they come. Several artists have recorded versions of this song, including Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Miracles, and Creedence Clearwater Revival, but Marvin Gaye's 1968 version is the undeniable soul classic. With just a handful of open chords and a simple yet groovy opening Dm riff, this song is a must-know on guitar.
Watch below as Jalib Johnson performs "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" on an episode of Fender Play Live from August 28th, 2019.
Check out the full list of Marvin Gaye songs on Fender Play here
Jackson 5: I’ll Be There
Co-written by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr., Bob West, and legendary producers Hal Davis and Willie Hutch, “I’ll Be There” was yet another #1 smash for The Jackson 5. The group’s youngest member, Michael Jackson, recorded the tune alongside his brothers when he was just 11 years old, displaying an impressive and emotional vocal range. To play “I’ll Be There” on guitar, you’ll weave your way through a variety of major and minor chords in unexpected ways, showcasing how chord changes were instrumental to the Motown sound. Quarter note and 16th note strumming, as well as triple stops help add to the powerful feel of “I’ll Be There.”
Beginner guitarists can listen for chord changes, while more advanced players can check out the bass notes he layers beneath those chords.
Full list of Jackson 5 songs on play here.
The Supremes: Baby Love
As Motown’s premiere all-female singing group, The Supremes launched the career of the iconic Diana Ross. “Baby Love,” one of the group’s biggest hits was an international #1 single, topping both the US and UK pop charts in 1964. To play “Baby Love” on guitar, bright chromatic chord sequences and dramatic string muting helps replicate the song’s intricate harmonies and tasty hooks.
Listen for the chromatic chord patterns and counterbalances that give the feel of vocal harmonies, even when strumming solo on an acoustic guitar.
Full list of The Supremes songs on play here.
Jackson 5: Never Can Say Goodbye
Originally written for The Supremes by Clifton Davis, The Jackson 5 took “Never Can Say Goodbye” to #1 on the Billboard R&B charts, and #2 on the US Hot 100 in 1971. Michael Jackson, the group’s youngest member, was only 12 years old when he sang lead vocals on one of the group’s most popular tracks. Replicate the song’s punchy feel on guitar by using such techniques as backbeat strumming and accented strumming to give it a percussive, beat-driven sound. You’ll also play some of staple Motown 7th chords on “Never Can Say Goodbye,” including a Dmaj7, Am7, and Dm7.
Full list of Jackson 5 songs on play here.
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